I was, by all accounts, a precocious child. Once, when I was about seven or eight years old, a woman my mother knew ran into the two of us at a local restaurant. I had ordered a creme brulée for dessert and the waitress had just brought it to our table when the woman approached to say hello.
“Well hello! Isn’t this nice, two ladies having lunch!” She winked. “And what are you having, little lady? Oooh, some yummy vanilla pudding! How nice!”
I looked up at her, annoyed that she’d interrupted my consumption of this delicious dessert, my spoon hovering impatiently over the shattered surface. “It’s called creme brulée,” I informed her. “It’s a French vanilla custard with a burnt sugar crust.”
“Well!” She paused. “Isn’t she something!” Oh, I was something alright. Exactly what…well, I’ll leave that to my mother to say.
But just because I was correcting my elders’ culinary lexicon at eight doesn’t mean I was a food snob. Far from it. I liked my McDonald’s and Roy Rogers as much as the next second grader — possibly more, since I was willing to try almost anything on the menu.
For a long time, I was partial to chicken nuggets. For me, it wasn’t so much the chicken (or McDonald’s case, “chicken”); it was the intoxicating honey/chicken nugget duo. See, when it comes to choosing a nugget dipping sauce, some folks fall into the BBQ sauce camp, others prefer sweet and sour sauce, but me, I always went for the honey.
I loved dipping the crunchy chicken into the gooey, sticky honey, and most of all I loved eating something savory with something sweet. Admittedly, I always preferred Roy Rogers nuggets. For starters, the chicken tasted more like real chicken (as opposed to the gristly, multi-colored stuff I found inside McDonald’s nuggets). But what set Roy’s nuggets apart was the coating: it was lightly spiced, which made them killer partners for some thick, sweet honey.
Fast forward about 20 years, and I can’t even remember the last time I saw a Roy Rogers. But I still crave that heavenly combination of crunchy chicken and honey. So when I found this recipe from an old issue of Food & Wine, I knew I had to make it.
Think of it as a sophisticated, worldly version of chicken nuggets and honey: Chicken braised with spices and saffron, then coated with a paste of chopped almonds, honey and rose flower water and baked until golden. The result is tender, aromatic chicken with the crunch of almonds and sweetness of honey. This isn’t finger food — you’ll need a knife and fork — but if you’re anything like me, you’ll suddenly realize you’re using your fingers to get every last, sticky morsel. It’s that good.
Chicken with Almonds and Honey
Adapted from Food & Wine, February 2004
This recipe is definitely quite sweet due to the honey, so I’d recommend pairing it with a savory, zesty side. Couscous with lemon and herbs would be wonderful, as would a number of vegetable dishes. You can easily cut the recipe in half and can use only breasts if you prefer.
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large onions, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
4 chicken breast halves on the bone ( 1/2 pound each)
4 whole chicken legs, split
1 1/2 quarts water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 cups whole blanched almonds
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon rose water (available at some specialty grocers)
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Heat the oil in a large enameled cast-iron casserole. Add the onions, cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 30 minutes.
Stir the cinnamon and ginger into the onions, then add the chicken pieces, stirring to coat with the flavorings. Add the water, lemon juice and saffron and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer, moving the chicken pieces around for even cooking until the breasts are just done, about 25 minutes. Transfer the breasts to a cutting board and cut them in half crosswise, then transfer them to a platter and cover with foil. Continue cooking the drumsticks and thighs until done, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer to the platter. Boil the cooking liquid over high heat until reduced to about 3 cups, about 35 minutes.
At this point, you can continue with the recipe (as I did) or refrigerate the chicken and sauce overnight and bring to room temperature before proceeding.
In a food processor, pulse the almonds until coarsely chopped. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the honey and rose water.
Remove the skin from the chicken and transfer to a large, shallow baking dish. Pour the reduced sauce over the chicken and spread with the almond paste. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the topping is browned. Serve hot.
Yield: 8 servings